WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: In a world where a handful of corporations rule the roost and the populace are placated with the violent sport of rollerball, champion player Jonathan E threatens to become bigger than the game itself. Energy boss Bartholomew is desperate to see Jonathan retire from the game, but Jonathan has deeper questions than how he’s going to fill his spare time and goes in search of answers.
The Corporate Wars have been won and lost, and power now rests with a cartel of faceless organisations. The public are denied access to books and knowledge but seem happy with the alternative provided, a vicious, no-holds-barred game called rollerball in which teams of burly men on skates battle with motorbikes and stud-gloved fists to deposit a speeding metal ball in a goal. Houston rollerblader Jonathan E (James Caan) is the world’s best player, and with friend and expert ‘swooper’ Moonpie (John Beck) at his side he’s absolutely at the top of his game. There is, however, a problem: Houston’s owner Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman) wants Jonathan out of the game, and has even arranged a TV special to announce the star’s retirement. Jonathan has already experienced executive control when his wife Ella (Maud Adams) was forcibly removed to become someone else’s spouse, so he would be well advised to obey orders*. On the other hand, Bartholomew and his slimy ilk rile Jonathan into finding out more about Corporate ways and why he is such a threat to them, a threat reflected in rule changes which – as Moonpie is to discover – make their beloved game an ever-more lethal pastime.
In a time before any old fool could put stuff on the web, my younger and less-precisely analytical self wrote a long and messily handwritten (I have no other kind) tirade against Rollerball. It got to a pitch where the slightest thing made my blood boil (‘If there are no time limits, why is there a clock?’; ‘Those aren’t jetcopters, they’re helicopters with sound effects’; ‘What sort of a bloody name is Moonpie?’; ‘motorbikes – SHUT UP!!’); Caan’s incessant hat-wearing didn’t help either. Nowadays, I can watch the movie and see it for what it is: a failed attempt by Jewison and writer William Harrison to broaden the touched-upon themes of Harrison’s short story Roller Ball Murder into a complete feature film.
But let’s start at the beginning, so I can say something nice. The one thing Rollerball really needs to get right is the game and luckily the film nails it, making the rollerball set look like a genuine, lived-in sports arena and creating the atmosphere of a raucous, partisan event (even if it’s obvious that the home and away arenas are all one track decorated in slightly different colours). The players look and act like proper sportsmen and the game is played entirely credibly; even if I’m not convinced by stories that cast and crew played whole games in their downtime, I accepted rollerball as a perfectly feasible future sport (hell, in a world where the Lingerie Football League exists, I’ll accept most things). The movie even gets across its central ‘bread and circuses’ theme that the senseless violence of rollerball is designed to keep the masses distracted from their disenfranchisement.
Unfortunately, where a top-notch film would build on its strong opening, using the future/alternate society to comment on contemporary ills, Rollerball throws away its momentum with a confused, longueur-filled storyline and uninspiring glimpses of the bigger picture. Actually, the greatest problem is that there is no bigger picture; I love the idea of the Corporate Wars (who fought them, and why?) and society changing in their aftermath, but like Jonathan we are kept completely in the dark about all of that. The only time we see the public is as the excitable mob who attend rollerball games, so we have no idea whether they are happy, oppressed, hungry or whatever. All we see is the other end, the executives who live in a world of tuxedos and distorted social rituals, a bunch of chinless wonders and ballgowned mistresses setting trees on fire (which at least livens up an otherwise dull exchange between Jonathan and Bartholomew).
This future’s no place for women, either: much like Soylent Green or The Stepford Wives, Rollerball’s women are objects to be bought or shipped off at the behest of rich men. It’s not clear why the women are so acquiescent to this treatment, though it may have something to do with the miniature Extra Strong Mints people keep taking as a pick-me-up.
The pills, which recall sci-fi folly Barbarella, point towards another problem with Rollerball, namely that every neat idea is either traded against a silly one or clumsily brought to the screen. The big-screen televisions are cool but the idea of ‘multivision’ (three small screens on top, showing a different angle or a freeze frame) is completely naff, or at least naffly pulled off. Moonpie’s grave injury should be a shocking and emotional moment, but it’s horribly mishandled – two bare rooms, containing a single machine and Burt Kwouk, form the least convincing hospital set (and perhaps location) in cinema history.
The film also speculates – with some prescience – that a centralised, computerised information store, far from adding to the world’s sum of knowledge, might ultimately reduce it to…well, zero; however, Jewison treats the scene like 2001 and makes Zero as HAL-like as possible**, while Caan looks totally lost as to how to react when confronted by Ralph Richardson’s acting. Unsurprisingly, Caan’s at home as the big sporting lump, but significantly less comfortable playing a troubled man slowly realising that the sport he loves is a meaningless spectacle. As for the other actors, Houseman calmly convinces as Bartholomew, the jaded yet vicious autocrat; Beck makes a good-natured if arrogant jock; and Maud Adams does her best to overcome her accent in a small role, in which she seems to know a lot more about rule changes than seems credible.
Rollerball aims for the profundity of Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 (the books, I mean) but falls very short, leaving Jonathan going round in circles at the end of the movie, much as he began. Harrison got it wrong anyway, since the idea of sports stars taking a stand against big corporations – rather than endorsing them all the way to the bank – now seems pretty ludicrous. Rollerball isn’t terrible, though I know why I got so annoyed with it when I first saw it: what could have been an exciting, thought-provoking film is all but ruined by a string of clumsy own goals. Still, it’s better than the thematically-similar Running Man, and stands as a classic in comparison with its benighted remake.
NOTES: 1My first instinct was to write ‘play ball’, but that needlessly confuses the issue. For Jonathan to play ball he’d have to not play ball, and vice versa.
2The use of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor and other classical pieces is just another of many nods towards Stanley Kubrick, reminding us only of Jewison’s lack of accomplishment compared to the master craftsman.